Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Cannell Channel

Having mentioned that "Riptide" was coming to DVD, I felt it necessary to post the opening title sequence of the show (courtesy of the indispensable Retro Junk). Like all the self-produced shows of Stephen J. Cannell, it features lots of clips of things blowing up or falling down, and a Mike Post theme tune that tells you exactly what kind of show this is. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Heaven help me, I miss long title sequences like this.

As I said before, "Riptide" was one of several shows Cannell created very quickly in the wake of the success of "The A-Team" in early 1983. His decision to become a totally independent producer of TV series -- making shows with little or no studio involvement and owning the copyrights himself -- had left him near-bankrupt at one point, with a bunch of flops (including the wonderful "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe," which really needs a DVD release) and one semi-hit ("The Greatest American Hero"). "The A-Team" finally made him a success, and he almost instantly came up with two shows to follow in its footsteps: "Hardcastle and McCormick" arrived in fall 1983, and "Riptide" in January of 1984. Meaning that Cannell was executive-producing, writing for, and renting space for three shows simultaneously. And as a look at the episode guides reveals, he was writing several scripts a season himself for each of these shows. Kind of astounding, really.

The limitations of doing a big action show without studio resources can be seen in each of these shows, which tend to set lots of scenes in warehouses -- which Cannell often used in lieu of studio space -- and recycle lots of footage; there's an "A-Team" episode where the first five minutes consist entirely of a chase scene from an earlier episode, dubbed over with new dialogue. And of course we have to factor in the basic cheesiness and the fact that every show was a re-hash of something else that NBC wanted to cash in on ("Riptide" = Brandon Tartikoff asking for something like Magnum P.I., but with a helicopter like Blue Thunder). But these shows had one thing going for them that most cheesy action shows didn't, and that was Cannell himself. I think Cannell is one of the best television writers ever, and when he writes a script for one of his own shows, no matter how cheesy or derivative the setup, he usually manages to raise the tone of the show with his smart, terse dialogue, balance between humor and seriousness, and ability to make even stereotypical characters interesting. Every character on a Cannell show seems a little more three-dimensional and fleshed out when Cannell is writing for them. For example, I've already mentioned in an earlier post that the only script Cannell wrote for the show "Hunter" -- a show he produced but didn't create -- is so much better than the rest of the first season's episodes that it almost seems incongruous.

I've said before that the unevenness of Cannell's self-produced shows may stem in part from the lack of really good writers to back him up, the way Juanita Bartlett and David Chase backed him up and even surpassed him on "Rockford Files." Of the people Cannell had working for him at his own production company, the best was probably Patrick Hasburgh -- who co-created "Hardcastle" and "21 Jump Street." Frank Lupo, who co-created "A-Team" and "Riptide" and "Wiseguy" and soloed on "Hunter," was sort of Cannell without the sense of humour. Babs Greyhosky, the "token female" on the staff, was very good and funny and given to off-kilter ideas; she wrote an "A-Team" script about the A-Team helping out a bunch of hookers, which NBC wouldn't produce, and when "Riptide" was cancelled due to competition from ABC's "Moonlighting", she and Tom Blomquist sent off "Riptide" with an elaborate Moonlighting parody. But some of the other staff writers in the mid-'80s tended to turn out half-a-dozen undifferentiated scripts a year for several different shows; this meant that these shows could seem dull when Cannell wasn't writing for them, and often collapsed entirely after Cannell turned his attention to another project. The only Cannell show that improved after he stopped writing for it was probably "Wiseguy."

And to close this off with an extra dose of Mike Post/Cannell '80s-ness, here is the main title of "Hardcastle and McCormick," with the opening narration translated into French:

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